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Exclusive! Suma Kanakala on Jayamma Panchayathi: I was initially surprised when I was offered a meaty role like Jayamma

Popular small-screen host and anchor Suma opens up about her big-screen comeback Jayamma Panchayathi, which hits theatres tomorrow

  • Srivathsan Nadadhur

Last Updated: 03.18 PM, May 05, 2022

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Exclusive! Suma Kanakala on Jayamma Panchayathi: I was initially surprised when I was offered a meaty role like Jayamma
Suma Kanakala

There's not a single high that Suma hasn't witnessed in the Telugu television industry in a small-screen career spanning over two decades. Many moons ago, she left films and reluctantly took up television, only to be nicknamed the 'small-screen queen' soon, for her wit, consistency, adaptation to the times and industry needs like no other counterpart. Suma is now making her big-screen comeback with Jayamma Panchayathi, a rural drama written and directed by Vijay Kumar Kalivarapu, with the titular role of Jayamma. In a chat with OTTplay.com, she looks back at her initial years in the industry when she found time for theatre, television and films and tells why she felt like a newcomer all over again while working for Jayamma Panchayathi. 

On her early years in television, theatre and films as an actress

It was not a part of my plan to enter the industry at all. A few people saw me giving a dance performance, approached my parents and asked if I had wanted to act and they had no issue with it. I was never interested in being a performer or an actress - I just tried to deliver whatever was entrusted to me to the best of my abilities. I started acting in serials after getting married to Rajeev (Kanakala). I wasn't keen on making a career in the industry. When shows like Avakkayyara, Star Mahila happened on TV, I realised this is the most comfortable thing to do for me. Of course, it's a lot of hard work, I don't mean to disrespect the efforts. There were no restrictions of having to adjust dates with others, timings were more flexible and I had to take care of my kids, who were very young then. I very consciously decided that I would only do television then.

Looking back at her big-screen debut Kalyana Prapthirastu, directed by Dasari Narayana Rao

Even before Kalyana Prapthirastu happened, a lot of people approached me to act in films like Ammayi Kaapuram, Aame, but I was adamant that I would act in films only after I complete my degree. I was ready to sign the first film that came my way after graduation. Just then, senior journalist Prabhu came with an offer to act in Dasari garu's film. Even then, I was headstrong and was hellbent that I wouldn't tolerate any skin show or any scenes that made me feel uncomfortable. I discussed this even with Dasari Narayana Rao later. Coming from a Malayali family, I didn't know his stature. They say ignorance is bliss! He convinced me it's a good character and brought me on board. Only when I went to the set, did I realise his larger-than-life aura and cursed myself for talking like that, before. 

It was a wonderful experience working in Kalyana Prapthirasthu; it was scary at the same time because people all around you are overwhelmed with the presence of Dasari garu and I too started behaving like that. I must say he gave me a scope to perform and there were no restrictions at all. I did a couple of Malayalam films and a few supporting roles in Telugu films, but I later decided that television was best for me. There's a lot of uncertainty in films, be it shoots, delays or releases. No one does that intentionally, what can one do if a generator or a light goes kaput on a set? There's no one to blame. I thought television wouldn't have these problems - I was proved wrong, it is no different here either. A celebrity arrives an hour late and my entire day is affected. Now, I take my entire team into confidence, check if they're ready and work around my schedule accordingly.

Saying yes to Jayamma Panchayathi

I took up the project because the director was initially hesitant if I could play Jayamma - I never had someone expressing such apprehension with me before. I watched a lot of his short films; some of them even won awards on a national level. When I first read the script, I was surprised by the length of my role. I didn't know if any director would offer me a chance to play such a well-defined role later and grabbed it with both hands. I surrendered to his vision and the atmosphere was conducive enough for him to correct me if necessary too. In a few instances, I would also make subtle improvisations that they wouldn't object to. When I was shooting for the film in Palakonda, I felt blessed to be surrounded by such beautiful, untapped landscapes. I was shocked that the regions weren't explored in any Telugu film for over 80 years. 

Understanding women better through the film and the story's focus on condemning patriarchy

A lot of women in their lives don't become maids or take up small jobs by choice. Three such women work in my house too. Many of them work because they have no other option - their husbands are no more, or they are caught up with other women and the entire responsibility of the children falls upon them. There's a dialogue in the film which is close to my heart. When the husband asks, 'what big deal is it to lose my life?', the wife says if she has to clean utensils in households to fend for the family. 'More than death, living and taking up responsibilities are difficult,' she explains, while emphasising the importance of life and not losing one's way. Many such women are left helpless after their husband's death because they don't know life beyond the four walls and have to start everything from scratch. 

Society has conditioned women to an extent, telling us that our only job is to listen. While the men give us options to take a call on some aspects of our lives, they snatch that freedom away from us in certain cases. It's obvious that a woman would feel bad about it. Jayamma Panchayathi suggests that it's important for everyone, regardless of gender, to have a say, self-expression, the freedom of speech and come out of the patriarchy around us. The beauty of the film is such that it discusses a lot of important social issues while still telling the story of Jayamma, be it superstitions, black magic or gender bias. At the same, the characters in the film may appear serious but the situations are so humourous.

The delay behind making a big-screen comeback and not producing the film under her home banner

We didn't put our heart into it, honestly. We were busy with whatever knocked on our doors until I decided I had to go out of the way to do something. We never had the idea of making a film and everyone warns us about getting into film production, referring to how many actors destroyed their lives and lost all their money. Just because someone wasn't able to handle it well, it's not fair to dismiss film production altogether. When I had a producer who was ready to invest in my abilities, I thought it was time to take the plunge. 

Feeling like a newcomer sets and mutual learning

I did feel like a newcomer on sets, being surrounded by 100 people, having to deliver my lines and not waste others' time. I went through all that process of being groomed into Jayamma. Working with non-actors surprisingly intimidated me, the newcomers in the film were perfect with the Srikakulam slang and performed with ease, as if it were not a big deal at all. I was the one scared because I didn't have a grasp of the slang. For them, the experience was just about acting with Suma and being seen with her and they were quite happy about it. I took a lot of input from them with dialogues in between shots. I tried my best to make them feel comfortable. With the cast being full of amateur theatre actors, I too gave them suggestions about the body language needed for a film. The learning was mutual.

If OTT as an option was considered for Jayamma Panchayathi

My producer wanted Jayamma Panchayathi to release in theatres only and sell it to an OTT platform only later. I also wanted to explore what would it be like to see myself on the big screen again. When my producer is ready for it, what is stopping me from accepting the challenge? 

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